The Science

What is Electronic Waste?

Learn more about one of the fastest growing waste-streams in the world

  • Every year we create more than 55 million tons of eWaste
  • That's the equivalent of dumping 1,000 laptops every second!
  • Less than 20% of eWaste is properly recycled
  • eWaste makes up only 2% of landfill by mass, but accounts for 70% of hazardous emissions
  • Each year, around $60billion of gold, copper, iron and other precious metals are dumped as eWaste
  • There's about 100 times more gold in a typical ton of eWaste than there is in a ton of gold ore
  • Always reuse and repair! Reusing a computer is up to 20 times more energy efficient than recycling it
Find out more
The People

On stage & behind the scenes

Robin Browning (Musician in Residence) – Composer, Keyboards, Ableton Live, Video Design & Production
Rowan Baker – Arranger, Co-composer, Keyboards, Ableton Live
George Pertwee – Sound Design, Percussion, Ableton Live
Marike Kruup – Violin
Anca Campanie – Violin
Austen Scully – Cello

Stacey Barnett – Dancer & Choreographer
Lara Prince & Sofia Mykulynska – Speakers & Writers

Devon Lewis – Electronics & eTextile Development
Alison Westcott – Fashion Design & Garment Production

Tim Hands – Sound Engineer

Ian Williams – Principal Investigator
Alice Brock – TRACE-E Project Intern, Spoken Word Development

Final TRACE-E performances presented as part of the SOTSEF Science & Engineering Day at University of Southampton

TRACE-E is funded by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council Impact Accelerator

The Music

Loops, Cycles & Smartphones

The music embodies key aspects of the circular economy through its use of loops & cycles. Arguably the most visible eWaste gadget – the ubiquitous smartphone – is ever-present, because the sound world we created uses tones from handsets, lust like the one in your pocket.

Everything you hear has been specially composed for the TRACE-E event. We started with samples of all types of electronic sound – from smartphone bleeps to the hum of a fluorescent tube. We then massaged – or mangled! – our samples using granular synthesis. This gives each track you hear a distinctive aural signature. Then, around this, we’ve woven other sounds to make a whole track. Some sounds come from other samples, but many more are ‘natural’ acoustic sounds, including those of our SÓN Orchestra string section, as well as piano and percussion. There are no words, although some tracks will have spoken word over the top (all of which is written by the two young speakers, by the way).

The music is full of loops – little repeated fragments, constantly evolving – leading to an amazing kaleidoscope of sonic texture. This chimes well with the overall project theme about the circular economy. We also use sequencers a lot, programmed to loop 16 fast musical steps. For this project, the use of smartphone sounds has led to some very ‘cute’ little loops, as you’ll hear.

Granular Sampling involves taking a sound and chopping it up into thousands of grains, each of which can be shifted around. It’s like a cloud of sound, a texture. The main granular sampler Robin uses is Cycles by Bristol-based company Slate+Ash. The irony of ‘Cycles’ being so pivotal to a circular-economy project is not lost on the team!

The Music

How the music was made

Lots of the music is built out of minimalist loops – small chunks of melody or rhythm that repeat & recycle, constantly changing and updating themselves – just like the circular economy!

Almost every track uses sampled electronic sounds – mainly smartphones, but also internet noise, lightbulbs and chips – all transformed into something new

Every musician needs their tools & instruments. We use Ableton Live, sample engines like Kontakt & Cycles by Slate+Ash, with a few sounds from Spitfire & Arturia but mainly ones we've designed ourselves

Old school retro-synths coupled with clever cutting-edge music tech. Think of it as Tangerine Dream meets Max Richter in a big, reverberating cave. With a dancer.

The Musician-in-Residence

Robin Browning on TRACE-E

This has been an incredible project to be a part of. Following on from the initial TRACE Project, in conjunction with SÓN Orchestra and 85 school-children, it has been a chance to deepen my understanding of the eWaste problem. Or, to put it another way … how constantly expanding developments in tech also come at a price, for us all. Our love (mine included) for gadgets and gear also brings a huge responsibility: how best to deal with the old stuff, as well as maintain the new. As an artist, I constantly balance the new with the old. TRACE-E has steered me far more towards repurposing and reuse, and galvanised me to share it with others.

The chance to meet with so many world-class scientists for this project has been humbling. I’ve learned so much! A lot of it couldn’t be incorporated into the performances you hear now, but all of it has informed my thinking and fuelled my creative journey. I’ve met optoelectronics experts, world-leaders in internet tech, chip-technologists, and some amazing people here at UoS, who are designing the dancer’s jacket in collaboration with a fashion designer at Winchester School of Art. More than anything, I love the creative cross-fertilisation, and am genuinely inspired by the united way we’ve all pushed forwards on a project which combines such oddly disparate disciplines. I work in the arts all the time, and am more convinced than ever that THIS is the future for what I do: to constantly question, learn, and work with others outside one’s own world. It’s so refreshing, and eye-opening.

the musician-in-residence

More about Robin

I’m a professional musician, primarily an orchestra conductor and conducting teacher (you can find more here on my website if you’re curious). But this project has pushed me far out of my comfort zone, for all kinds of reasons. The learning curve has been steep, sometimes rather daunting. I’ve grappled with how to successfully combine all the science, tech and the crucial environmental aspects with sound, music and creativity.

Despite lots of soul-searching, I always cling to what I think I sounds good. Knowing how to communicate through music, I believe I can help create lasting impact with you, our audience. And, being a conductor, I fully appreciate how crucial one’s musical collaborators are. I’ve been blessed with the input and guidance of key people behind TRACE-E (Ian Williams and Alice Brock most importantly), and have spent the last few months working intensively with my musical friends on stage (chiefly Rowan Baker and George Pertwee) who’ve helped expand my ideas and shape things.

This has been a truly inspiring project to see through to fruition: today’s final performances. I cannot thank the team around me enough. And I sincerely hope it will leave a mark on you – aurally, visually and hopefully emotionally – as you leave the hall. I’d love to hear what you think (there are links if you scroll down) and where you think we should all go next. I’m absolutely certain there will be more coming…

More about Robin
The Jacket

Multicolour eTextile Jacket with 10,000 LEDs

A bespoke dancer’s jacket, made from recycled and sustainable fabrics, embedded with multiple LEDs cascading across front and back, all controlled by motion-sensing chips in each of the wearer’s wrists

From the earliest days of the TRACE-E project, Robin Browning was convinced that the optimal way to incorporate semiconductor tech with music was through the use of wearables. Reaching out to scientists at Arm-ECS at the University of Southampton, discussions with Prof Steve Beeby led to a collaboration with eTextile scientist Devon Lewis at Future Worlds (the UoS entrepreneurial incubator), alongside scientist Kai Yang and fashion designer Alison Westcott at Winchester School of Art. Robin’s idea was for the team to create a dancer’s jacket from the ground up, which could control both embedded lights, and impact sound using Ableton Live and MIDI-mapping. Thus a new technicolour (dream) jacket was born.

As TRACE-E is a sustainability project, we’ve been highly aware from the get-go that by creating a new jacket, we’re adding to global eWaste, not lessening it! Disposal of eTextiles is of global concern, because the incorporation of any circuitry or power supply can impinge its likelihood of recycling or reuse. However, not only has the fabric for our jacket been sustainably sourced, but every millimetre of micro circuitry – LEDs, two ARM accelerometer chips, and battery pack hidden in the small of the back – is designed with adjustment, removal and reuse in mind. Plus, the jacket have a life way beyond the TRACE-E project – Robin plans to ‘borrow’ it to wear when he conducts… And, at any point, all the electronics can be removed from the mesh lining, meaning both it and the fabric can be repurposed.


Funding & Support for TRACE-E

TRACE-E is funded by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Impact Accelerator at University of Southampton

Robin Browning acknowledges the help and support of the following, without whom TRACE-E would not have been possible

  • Professor Ian Williams – a never-ending source of guidance and advice
  • Alice Brock – for being a tower of strength during all manner of meltdowns
  • Rowan & George – for your brilliant skill, insight and real creative flair. What a joy to work alongside you both
  • My musical and performer friends – it has been an honour to share the stage with you all. Thank you for everything you've brought to this
  • Devon Lewis and Alison Westcott – thank you so much for your hours of hard work, perspiration, and for understanding so well what I was always looking for
  • Sylvia Linati and the team at SOTSEF
  • Kevin, Val, Liz and Daniel at Turner Sims
  • Finally, to Anca – for putting up with hour after hour of sound loops, my dancing, and not having any breaks together for four months. Thank you.
Get in touch

Let us know what you think!

We’d love to hear what you think about the performances and the project overall. Whether it’s about the music, the science, the tech – send an email via the button below, and connect with all the team via social media (use the icons below).

Don’t forget to add #TRACE to any comments, thoughts or images you put online.

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